A military conflict has broken out in Ethiopia, raising fears of instability and a humanitarian crisis in the strategic Horn of Africa.

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Tigray refugees in eastern Sudan, 22 November 2020 (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

A military conflict in northern Ethiopia has raised fears of dangerous instability and a major humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, one of the world’s most strategic areas.

It has also underlined the potential pitfalls after repressive regimes are overthrown in ethnically diverse countries and illustrates how winners of the Nobel Peace Prize can quickly lose their shine when reality strikes.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Africa’s youngest leader at 44, announced last Saturday that federal forces had taken the rebel Tigrayan regional capital of Mekelle after three weeks of fighting in which thousands are reported to have died. He said the campaign had ended and his forces were searching for Tigrayan leaders.

But analysts believe the conflict may be far from over and his army could yet become bogged down in a long guerrilla conflict in mountainous terrain against a formidable foe. Tigrayan leader Debretsion Gebremichael vowed to fight on and said there were still clashes near Mekelle, a city of 500,000 people.

Ethiopia is already one of the biggest hosts of refugees in Africa, but the Tigray fighting has sent more than 43,000 people fleeing into neighbouring Sudan. The United Nations believes this number could reach 200,000 and warns of a major emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic is worsening conditions for refugees.

Why is civil war in Ethiopia so dangerous?

Critics say Abiy’s action is rash and heavy-handed, risking a dangerous conflagration that could threaten not only the integrity of Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, but sow instability across a wide swathe of the continent. They say it tarnishes the Nobel he won only last year.

Despite the distractions of the global coronavirus pandemic and the U.S. election’s messy aftermath, the conflict has raised deep concern within the United Nations and among world powers, including the United States, European Union and Britain.

Ethiopia, which is twice the size of France, is one of the world’s oldest nations, with an impressive cultural history. It is proud of being one of only two African nations not to have been colonised in the European “Scramble for Africa.” Its orthodox Christianity dates from the 4th century, unlike most of the continent, where the faith was imported by colonial missionaries.

However, Ethiopia is also extremely diverse, with 10 distinct regions and 80 ethnic groups with their own languages and culture. It has a very violent modern history.

Experts and diplomats fear that conflict in Tigray could unleash centrifugal forces as other regions try to break free. Several incidents of serious ethnic bloodshed have occurred recently in other regions. If Ethiopia spins apart or descends into civil war, it could create a “black hole” that draws in volatile neighbours.

Conflict against Ethiopia’s previous rulers

The conflict in Tigray pits Abiy, a modernising reformer who became prime minister two years ago, against the previous rulers from the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), who led the war to overthrow a brutal Marxist regime in 1991.

For three decades afterward, despite representing only 6% of the 115 million population, they dominated power and led a remarkable transformation of the economy, boasting some of the world’s highest growth rates for two decades.

But their rule was brutally repressive and provoked increasing opposition from larger ethnic groups, leading in 2018 to the appointment of Abiy, a former army intelligence officer, who is from the biggest group, the Oromo.

Abiy won plaudits for a wave of reform and liberalisation, including releasing thousands of political prisoners and making peace with Eritrea after two decades of hostility. He won the Nobel Prize last year. But as in other parts of the world, his relaxation of three decades of repression took the genie out of the bottle of regional demands for more power.

Intercommunal violence, coup attempt

The Tigrayans accused him of discriminating unfairly against them and of trying to concentrate power in the centre. Abiy, who survived a coup and an assassination attempt, has imprisoned opposition leaders to combat challenges to his rule, and hundreds have died in intercommunal violence or clashes with police since he took over.

Abiy launched his assault on Tigray on November 4 after the TPLF attacked a key military base. They had previously held elections in defiance of the Addis government which postponed national polls because of COVID-19.

Critics accuse Abiy of trying to become another authoritarian ruler to implement his “medemer” philosophy of centralised strength through diversity, instead of regional autonomy.

Some experts suggest Ethiopia risks following the example of Yugoslavia, where the death of communist dictator Josip Tito led to the break-up of the country in a series of bloody ethnic wars in the 1990s.

Chaos and conflict also followed the Western removal of brutal dictators in Libya and Iraq, with little planning for the aftermath.

Why is the Horn of Africa so strategic?

Ethiopia is situated in a highly unstable region and has been a long-standing linchpin of U.S. foreign policy.

However, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden may need to do rapid repair work after Donald Trump enraged Addis in October by suggesting Cairo should “blow up” a huge new dam being built by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile, a $4-billion project that has caused tension with downstream Egypt and Sudan.

China, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, France and several other nations have bases in the Horn, underlining its significance on the southern shores of the Red Sea, opposite Yemen, which itself is mired in civil war and a massive humanitarian crisis. Russia is reported to be eying a naval base in the Horn.

The area has also been drawn into a regional fight for influence between Qatar and Turkey on one hand and the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other.

Ethiopia, which hosts the African Union (AU) headquarters, borders Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia, which are all fragile, especially the latter which has been in a state of semi-anarchy for decades. Ethiopia has 4,000 troops in an AU force fighting the Islamist al-Shabaab in support of the weak Mogadishu government.

Vacuum in Somalia

But Ethiopian troops have been withdrawn to join Abiy’s offensive. A weakening of the AU force would strengthen Shabaab, which has launched several attacks into Kenya in the past. Trump is also reported to be planning to remove 700 U.S. special forces from Somalia in the dying months of his presidency.

The Tigray conflict has drawn in neighbouring Eritrea, a deeply repressive hermit state sometimes compared to North Korea. Isaias Afwerki, its leader, is a sworn enemy of the TPLF, which led a 1998-2000 border war between the two countries. Following Abiy’s peace treaty with Eritrea, Isaias has emerged as his military ally against Tigray.

The TPLF accuses him of sending troops to support Abiy, and it has fired missiles at the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

Abiy’s supporters say he had no alternative but to confront Tigray’s leaders to curb a wave of rebellion and separatism, but his military offensive could have uncontrollable consequences with ramifications for a wide area of Africa and the Gulf.

Questions to consider:

  1. Why is Ethiopia considered so strategically important?
  2. Why did Ethiopia’s government attack Tigray, and what dangers are posed by the fighting?
  3. Why did Abiy win the Nobel Prize?
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Barry Moody first reported from Ethiopia in 1976, shortly after the overthrow and murder of Emperor Haile Selassie by a military junta. He was Africa Editor for Reuters for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which time he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. He worked on every continent as one of the agency’s most experienced foreign correspondents and editors. His postings included Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, Hong Kong, Australasia and the United States. He ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the EU debt crisis.

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World Africa Conflict in strategic Ethiopia rings global alarm bells